WMU News

NIH program puts undergraduates in cutting-edge research

May 23, 2004

KALAMAZOO--A lot of college students see themselves conducting important research in graduate school, but many Western Michigan University students engage in high-profile research long before receiving their bachelor's degrees.

Among them are participants of the National Institutes of Health's Clinical Research Student Volunteer Program, which allows undergraduates to do biomedical research in one of 200 cutting-edge laboratories operated by the 27 institutes and centers on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md.

WMU is one of only 20 U.S. higher education institutions to be invited to take part in the CRSV Program, says Carolyn Hornev, the University's CRSV Program coordinator and an advisor in its Career and Student Employment Services office.

Hornev says more than a dozen undergraduates have been selected for the program since NIH began partnering with WMU in 1999. The students, categorized as interns by WMU and volunteers by the NIH, have had a chance to join studies delving into such important subjects as bipolar disorders, breast cancer, child obesity and the genetics of pain.

At the beginning of their 10- to 12-week internship, the students interview for mentored research positions. Then, after being assigned to a project team, they fully participate in the team's research. In addition, during two or three weeks of this work, they also participate in an ongoing dietary study on the metabolism of lipoproteins (fat and cholesterol).

"It was the single best extracurricular opportunity I've had as an undergraduate," Joshua Pohlmann says of his internship. "My experience opened up worlds of opportunities for me to learn and accomplish many exciting things."

Pohlmann, a junior from Byron Center, Mich., majoring in biomedical sciences, was involved in a project that resulted in a new medical product--an endotracheal tube chemically modified to prevent pneumonia. Endotracheal tubes are inserted down the throat to carry oxygen to the lungs of patients on ventilators, and pneumonia is the most common cause of death in these patients.

The modified endotracheal tube was developed at the NIH's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which was just beginning laboratory, animal and clinical trials for the device when Pohlmann joined the project team in January 2003. Although only a sophomore, he was given the task of writing the protocol for the first phase of testing, then returned to Bethesda the summer after finishing his internship to perform the necessary laboratory experiments.

Work has progressed since then, and now the project team has received FDA approval to perform a series of international clinical studies before releasing the new device for general use.

Once again, Pohlmann has been asked to rejoin the project. He will leave May 30 for Milan, Italy, where he and principal investigator Dr. Lorenzo Berra will lead the primary hospital study at the University of Milan's San Gerado Hospital. His role in the study will be to coordinate the results with the project's international collaborators in France and Spain and the NIH in Maryland.

"This will serve as a great opportunity to see medicine first hand by working directly with the physicians carrying out the work," Pohlmann says. "My time spent with the NIH has given me a real desire to do medicine and research, so I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to see this study through from start to finish. It's these kinds of things that make WMU a highly competitive premedical institution."

Hornev notes that the CRSV Program helps many students clarify their career goals and land interviews or gain entry into medical, dental or graduate schools. In addition, she says participants have been published in abstracts and journals and been asked to return to the NIH for public presentations or, like Pohlmann, to do further research.

"We're a student-centered research institution, so we're always working to develop and expand opportunities that will give our students meaningful research and creative experiences," Hornev says. "But we don't limit these opportunities to graduate-level study. Our undergraduate students have wonderful options to choose from, too. The NIH program is just one example."

Two other WMU students who chose to pursue that option are biomedical sciences majors Melissa Moran of Linden, Mich., and Nicole Scanland of Crete, Ill.

Moran, who will graduate in August and participate in WMU's June commencement exercises, did research in the National Cancer Institute's Laboratory for Cellular Carcinogenesis and Tumor Promotion from March 26 to June 4, 2003.

She participated in a study that involved mice with a mutation in the GDNF gene, a mutation that was found to cause a slight kidney malformation and make mice predisposed to several age-related problems. Researchers hope their work will provide information about the impact this genetic deficiency has on kidney disease related to cancer, hypertension and dementia.

"It was interesting. I did lots of dissection, tissue collection, slide preparation, genotyping, data collection and analysis of mice cat scans," Moran says. "The gene mutation seems to relate to hypertension and cancer, but it will take years to correlate all the data. Once that's done, we'll know if the gene is causing these diseases and if what we learned can be applied to humans."

Currently, Moran is interning at MPI Research in Mattawan, Mich., doing small-animal toxicology--a post she landed because of her work at NIH. She will take a full-time job with MPI after graduation, and plans to work at the company for a year before applying to WMU's master of physician assistant program.

"I never knew how amazing the NIH was and all the research it does. The experience opened up my eyes to the vast world of research," she says. "As interns, we could attend seminars for free even if they were outside of our own studies, so we got a first look at new research that was happening on the NIH campus. We also got to know each other and to live in a very cool place. It was an all-round good experience."

As it turns out, one of the many interns Moran met in Bethesda is Nicole Scanland, a fellow WMU student. Scanland interned from April 2 to June 11, 2003, in the Pediatrics Movement Disorder Unit at a branch of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Scanland, now a junior, worked with a physician studying children with cerebral palsy. According to the Mayo Clinic, cerebral palsy refers to movement and posture abnormalities caused by early damage to the brain. The damage can occur during fetal development, the birth process or the first few months after birth. Getting the right therapy for children can make a big difference in reducing the long-term impact of this incurable condition.

"I had a lot of contact with children and their parents because we had to see who would be appropriate for the study," Scanland says. "I wanted a lot of patient interaction, especially with children, and that's just what I got. I now know I definitely want to be a doctor."

During her internship, Scanland also ran some experiments and helped measure children's brain waves using an EEG machine. These tests were conducted to see how the left and right sides of the brain function in those who have cerebral palsy and those who do not have the condition.

"It was extremely rewarding and I gained an immense amount of experience," she says. "Carolyn (Hornev) and John Spitsbergen (WMU associate professor of biological sciences) eased my apprehension. If I could do it all over again, the only thing I would do differently would be to stay longer. Any student who has an opportunity like this should definitely take it."

After graduating this summer, Scanland will be taking a little time off then go on to medical school. But her time off won't be all rest and relaxation. Her mentor at the NIH liked her work so much that she has asked Scanland to come back and do another stint in Bethesda after graduation.

CRSV Program participants are selected based on their academic commitment, motivation and medical eligibility. The interns must have a science or health-related major, a minimum 3.0 overall grade point average, and a willingness to live in a patient care facility during their internship. They receive a daily stipend, free room and board, telephone and laundry service, and round-trip airfare.

The NIH is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Division of Public Health Services. It conducts medical and behavioral research in Bethesda, plus supports research at universities, medical schools, hospitals and research institutions around the nation and abroad.

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, 269 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

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